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Jabs set up big run
PHOENIX – Ryan Mathews planted his feet, found a crease and took off.
His 48-yard run through the middle of the Cardinals’ defense showed what the Chargers’ line and running backs can do when the execution is on point.
San Diego wasn’t devastating running the ball, but often one big play skews rushing totals favorably. Mathews averaged 6.9 yards on 10 carries, helping the Chargers to 5.3 yards per rush.
Like most teams, the Chargers feel they can be most effective over the course of an entire game, which the starting offensive line won’t get until Sept. 11 when the regular season begins.
“The run game’s like a wear-down process. It’s like the small jabs in a boxing match that you don’t really feel, but it just starts to wear the other down,” Jeromey Clary said. “You just keep plugging away, plugging away, plugging away and a four-yard gain will turn into seven, and a seven-yard gain will turn into 12.”
Mike Tolbert rushed for 26 yards on seven carries, his highest total this preseason, and also added two short catches for 27 yards.
On third-and-1 during San Diego’s game-winning drive, Frank Summers plowed ahead for a four-yard gain.
“Arizona gave us some different looks they hadn’t shown in the last two games. You’re trying to get work on the different looks,” Head Coach Norv Turner said. “It’s hard to evaluate your running game until you get to play an entire game. I thought we had some good runs. I thought we had some breakdowns. I know a couple plays we’re one guy away from getting a big play.”
CLUTCH AGAIN: Billy Volek is starting to resemble former NBA player Robert Horry.
Horry was a role player that earned the nickname Big Shot Rob for his propensity to hit game-winning shots, and collected seven championship rings as a result.
Volek seems to excel in pressure situations as well, leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Indianapolis in the Divisional playoffs and getting a score to put a Week 17 win away against Washington in ’10.
On Saturday, Volek completed 9-of-17 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, finding Bryan Walters for a 14-yard touchdown with three seconds left.
“It was a bunch of guys going out there fighting and scrapping it up. It was fun,” Volek said.
RETURN TO SENDER: Richard Goodman made another fan base gasp with a quick-hit kickoff return, beating everyone but Arizona’s kicker to the left sideline.
Goodman’s 43-yard return gave the Chargers good field position and helped set up Nate Kaeding’s 52-yard field goal in the first quarter.
He also made a form tackle on the elusive LaRod Stephens-Howling during the game’s opening kickoff, forcing the Cardinals to start at their own 16.
Goodman now averages 30.1 yards on kickoff returns during the last two preseasons.
RUN CONTINUES: Kicker Nate Kaeding’s 52-yard field goal in the first quarter, his second of more than 50 yards in less than a week, makes him 4-for-4 this preseason.
Kaeding focused on extending his range this offseason after going 1-of-4 on attempts longer than 50 yards last season. A groin injury that kept him from three games also may have influenced that figure.
Kaeding also produced three touchbacks against the Cardinals.
STAYING CONSISTENT: Vincent Jackson has multiple catches and at least one grab of more than 30 yards in each of the first three preseason games.
The veteran receiver caught five passes for 78 yards Saturday. He leads the Chargers with 10 catches for 181 yards through three preseason games.
ADMIRED: Tough for Stephen Cooper, and Stephen Cooper is tough.
That sums up the last week for San Diego’s longest-tenured inside linebacker. Cooper tore his right biceps against Dallas on Aug. 21, then asked the coaching staff to allow him to prolong surgery so he can attempt to play with the injury.
He entered the game several times in the second half against Arizona, shedding a few blocks and dropping into coverage.
“I just think that he has the utmost respect from everybody anyway,” fellow inside linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “But to see a guy go out knowing that he could put his body at more risk and be able to play with it, I think it speaks volumes about his character.”
OPPORTUNITIES ABUNDANT: College free agent outside linebacker Darryl Gamble got an unlikely second consecutive start with injuries relegating Shaun Phillips, Travis LaBoy and Larry English to the sideline.
Gamble has been on the field for about 120 plays the last two games, Turner estimated.
The Georgia product made several stops in the backfield against Seattle, then pounced on a Cardinals fumble and rolled into the end zone Saturday for a fourth-quarter touchdown that set the stage for Volek’s winning drive.
“It was awesome. My first NFL touchdown. It’s just overwhelming right now,” said a stunned Gamble. “I’m in there with the older guys. It’s a little easier to do my job when I’ve got great talent around me.”
BOLTS: Cam Thomas started at nose tackle for Antonio Garay, Antwan Barnes started for Phillips and Brandyn Dombrowski started for Marcus McNeill … Vincent Brown played in his first NFL game, catching two passes for 23 yards … Jordan Todman continued to contribute, this time with a 19-yard reception on fourth-and-10 to keep the game-winning drive going … Antwan Barnes made an 11-yard sack in his 2011 debut … Mike Scifres had a net of 41.5 yards per punt and placed three of his four inside the 20 … The Chargers have committed just one turnover in the last two preseason games combined … After the game, Rivers gave his No. 17 jersey to Larry Fitzgerald.
KICKOFF WEATHER: 72 degrees (inside).